Berkman in 'hog heaven' as coach at HBU

January 20th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Lance Berkman's long-held desire to be a college baseball head coach finally became a reality last spring when Houston Baptist University tabbed him to take over a program in need of a jolt. And with the start of his first season at the helm of the Huskies only four weeks away, Berkman is reveling in his new role.

“I feel like I'm in hog heaven,” he said. “I'm really enjoying it. You feel like it's good, honest work. ... Being around these young men every day is a real blessing for me.”

Other than the gray hair that covers his head, Berkman looks like he could still stand in a Major League batter’s box and take a few competitive hacks. Instead, Berkman is giving instruction on a balmy January afternoon in a batting cage at HBU, a former NAIA school that made the move to NCAA Division I in 2008. The Huskies, who open the season Feb. 18 against Rutgers, hired the former Astros slugger on May 31 to take over a program that won just 14 games in 2021.

Berkman, the 1997 national college Player of the Year at Rice University and first-round Draft pick by the Astros, said fulfilling a dream of being a Division I coach and getting to do it in his hometown is the perfect opportunity.

“That really, above everything else, was what made the most sense,” he said. “But the other things that are intriguing to me are the fact that you can kind of build this program from scratch the way you want. And I think it's well positioned in terms of being in the best amateur baseball city in the country.

“So I look at it as a little bit of maybe a sleeping giant, where if we can do some facilities improvements, and we can recruit well, and we can make it a desirable destination for the high school kids in the area, then there's no reason why we can't be nationally competitive in a few years. But to me the biggest advantage that we have is being in the city.”

The duties of a college coach are vast, from recruiting to scheduling to practice. Berkman says things are “moving at a rapid pace,” including some fundraising efforts to renovate a stadium that doesn’t yet have lights or locker rooms. He hopes to raise close to $20 million for artificial turf, an indoor batting cage/weight room, new grandstands, lights and a locker room.

“I've still got some fundraising and I have guys in the back of my mind that when we get some momentum and start rolling a little bit, I can go to them and say, ‘Hey, can you help us finish it?’” Berkman said.

Berkman believes HBU has potential to be one of the best mid-major programs in the country. When he tried to get the head coaching job at his alma mater, Rice, a few years ago, Berkman paid visits to some big-time programs to learn more about running a college program. Among the places he visited were Vanderbilt, Louisville and TCU, and he’s picked the brain of Texas coach David Pierce.

“I've tried to do as much homework as I can to be as prepared as I can for what we'd like to do,” he said.

A vision for what Berkman wants HBU to become sits 250 miles north at Dallas Baptist University, which started playing in Division I in 2004 and last year nearly made the College World Series. Berkman said the biggest common thread among the successful programs he’s visited is the culture.

“And when you can get buy-in from your student athletes, that goes a long way," he said. “Of course, you know, it's the Jimmy’s and Joe's … you’ve got to have talent. The three commonalities that I've noticed, when I go around to these places, is they recruit really well, they do a great job implementing culture and they're all very organized.”

Berkman admits organization is where he has the most room for growth because of the countless number of responsibilities of a Division I coach. One area he hopes to have an advantage, though, is recruiting. He brings name recognition from a stellar 15-year career in which he joined Hall of Famers Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell as members of the Astros’ vaunted Killer B’s in the 2000s.

“I think we're getting into some doors that maybe they hadn't been able to get into in the past,” he said. “When you call somebody and they recognize your name, it gives a little bit more credibility.”

The grueling bus rides and roadside hotels of life in the Southland Conference are a long way from the five-star hotels and airline charters that Berkman enjoyed in Major Leagues. He’s undaunted by that, saying his college career at Rice was the most fun he’s had playing baseball. Getting his hands dirty in the college game is where he belongs.

"It's something that I'm not shying away from," he said. "I mean, staying at Best Western, you know, no big deal."